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The past tense – KS1 verbs to revisit now and then

A secure understanding of how to use different tenses is essential if children are to make good progress in writing
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By Sue Drury

Last updated 30 June 2020

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They say you shouldn’t dwell on the past. But when it comes to teaching tenses at KS1, the past is something that might need a little more attention. Is your English grammar knowledge simple or perfect? Can you confidently teach the difference between the various forms and where pupils should use each one?

Whether you feel you have grasped it, grasped this some time ago or had grasped it and want a refresher, here are some ideas for making sure your understanding of this topic is all present and correct.

We have also included some examples of how to use past tenses – not necessarily because you need them, of course, but it is nice to be reminded now and again!

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Simple past tense explanation

The tense of any piece of writing tells you when the action happens. Things that happened, had happened or were happening before the present moment count as the past. Along with the person (first, second and third), it is the tense that determines which form of the verb should be used in any sentence.

When trying to help young writers get the hang of this, the simple inclusion of an obvious time frame, such as the words yesterday or already are often all it takes to clarify matters.

For example, I washed up yesterday or I had washed up already. You can also help to secure this understanding by using our past tense SPaG challenge mat. While you’re about it, why not keep these ideas at the forefront of their minds by displaying our interactive SPaG posters?

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2 | Genre and tense

The dominant tense of a text often depends on the genre but it usually helps to remind pupils about this on a regular basis. Stories are almost always in the past. Diary entries and recounts of events are, by definition, set in the past. That doesn’t mean that absolutely every verb in that piece must be written in the past tense – more on that in a moment. However, it is often useful to include a reference to past tense verbs in any check list or set of success criteria.

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A word on using tense with consistency

The stated requirement at KS1 is that pupils are able to use the past and present tense mostly correctly and consistently. However, it is perfectly possible to have present tense verbs in texts that are primarily set in the past. For example, it would be correct for a pupil to write We went on a trip to Walmouth yesterday. Walmouth is a castle that was built hundreds of years ago. The same is often true in dialogue: “I am so grateful,” said the old man.

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Simple past tense

This is possibly the most familiar of the past tenses. It’s the one the that often involves adding the suffix -ed to the end of the verb. The main thing to watch here is the various spelling rules concerning verbs that end in y (marry – married) and those where the consonant needs to be doubled to preserve the short vowel sound. After all, there is a big difference between the gardener hoped for rain and the gardener hopped for rain.

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Irregular verb use in past tense

One of the most charming aspects of children’s language development is when they have clearly picked up a rule, such as the addition of -ed for the simple past tense, but haven’t yet learned the exceptions: “She telled me to do it,” for instance. Sadly, there is little option but to just expose them to irregular verbs as often as possible – our SPaG challenge mat can help you there.

It is also important to kindly correct them when they do make a spoken mistake, including those thrown up by the quirks of local dialects. In Suffolk, for example, they long ago noticed a pattern in the way that verbs ending -ow took the irregular past tense ending of -ew (know, knew; throw, threw) but overzealously applied it to show too (I shew her how to do it).

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Present perfect

This is quite a tricky one because it has something of a past tense feel to it. The present perfect tense is for actions that started before now but are still true or are still ongoing. He has finished his work. She has taught at this school for ten years. You’ll notice that it is formed by the present tense of the verb to have plus the simple past tense of the action in question.

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Past perfect

This tense is for actions that had been undertaken and completed in the past. For example, they had baked all their contributions for the cake stall or thankfully, she had written all her reports. This time, the past tense of the verb to have is used along with the past tense of the main verb.

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Practice makes perfect tense

Developing a good understanding of tense is important not just for ticking-off your assessment framework statements but also in preparation for SATs. Keep your class on top of their game by using our SATs grammar recap packs. These are designed to revise the key concepts as well as familiarising pupils with the sort of questions children might face in the tests.

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Looking to the future tense

Remember, there are other forms of past and present tenses, not to mention the future tense, but those are not expected to be taught until KS2. For now, we hope this has taken the tension out of tenses at KS1.

What is tense?

The tense shows when the action in a piece of writing is taking place.

  • The past tense is about things that have already happened.
  • The present tense is about things that are happening now.
  • The future tense is about things that are yet to happen.

What is past tense?

The simple past tense is about things that were finished before now. Examples include she worked, he wrote, the sun rose. Many simple past tense verbs add the suffix -ed to the basic verb (eg worked), but some don’t follow the -ed rule (eg wrote, rose).

The past progressive tense is about things that were happening in the past. Examples include: she was working, he was writing, the sun was rising.

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